Frank Zappa’s 1980s Appearances on The David Letterman Show

I’ve nev­er been a huge fan of Frank Zappa’s music and grav­i­tat­ed more toward the bizarre yet bluesy son­ic world of his some­time col­lab­o­ra­tor and life­long fren­e­my Cap­tain Beef­heart. But I get the appeal of Zappa’s wild­ly vir­tu­oso cat­a­log and his sar­don­ic, even caus­tic, per­son­al­i­ty. The phrase may have devolved into cliché, but it’s still worth say­ing of Zap­pa: he was a real orig­i­nal, a tru­ly inde­pen­dent musi­cian who insist­ed on doing things his way. Most admirably, he had the tal­ent, vision, and strength of will to do so for decades in a busi­ness that leg­en­dar­i­ly chews up and spits out artists with even the tough­est of con­sti­tu­tions.

Zap­pa, notes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its pro­file, “was rock and roll’s sharpest musi­cal mind and most astute social crit­ic… the most pro­lif­ic com­pos­er of his age,” who “bridged genres—rock, jazz, clas­si­cal, avant-garde and even nov­el­ty music—with mas­ter­ful ease.” Record­ing “over six­ty albums’ worth of mate­r­i­al in his fifty-two years,” he famous­ly dis­cov­ered, nur­tured, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with some of the most tech­ni­cal­ly pro­fi­cient and accom­plished of play­ers. He was indie before indie, and “con­front­ed the cor­rupt pol­i­tics of the rul­ing class” with fero­cious wit and unspar­ing satire, hold­ing “the banal and deca­dent lifestyles of his coun­try­men to unfor­giv­ing scruti­ny.”

Need­less to say, Zap­pa him­self was not prone to banal­i­ty or deca­dence. He stood apart from his con­tem­po­raries with both his utter hatred of trends and his com­mit­ment to sobri­ety, which meant that he was nev­er less than total­ly lucid, if nev­er total­ly clear, in inter­views and TV appear­ances. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, David Let­ter­man, cham­pi­on of oth­er fierce­ly tal­ent­ed musi­cal odd­balls like War­ren Zevon, was a Zap­pa fan. Between 1982 and 83, Zap­pa came on Let­ter­man three times, the first, in August of 82, with his daugh­ter Moon (or “Moon Unit,” who almost end­ed up with the name “Motor­head,” he says).

The younger Zap­pa inher­it­ed her father’s dead­pan. “When I was lit­tle,” she says, “I want­ed to change my name to Beau­ty Heart. Or Mary.” But Zap­pa, the “musi­cal and a soci­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non,” as Let­ter­man calls him, gets to talk about more than his kids’ weird names. In his June, 83 appear­ance, fur­ther up, he pro­motes his Lon­don Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra album. As he explains, the expe­ri­ence of work­ing with cranky clas­si­cal musi­cians on a very tight sched­ule test­ed his per­fec­tion­is­tic (some might say con­trol­ling) tem­pera­ment. The album gave rise, writes Eduar­do Riva­davia at All­mu­sic, “to his well-doc­u­ment­ed love/hate (most­ly hate) rela­tion­ship with sym­pho­ny orches­tras there­after.”

But no mat­ter how well or bad­ly a project went, Zap­pa always moved right along to the next thing. He was nev­er with­out an ambi­tious new album to pro­mote. (In his final Let­ter­man appear­ance, on Hal­loween, above, he had a musi­cal, which turned into album, the triple-LP Thing-Fish.) Since he nev­er stopped work­ing for a moment, one set of ideas gen­er­at­ing the next—he told Rolling Stone in answer to a ques­tion about how he looked back on his many records—“It’s all one album.” See a super­cut below of all of Zappa’s 80s vis­its to the Let­ter­man set, with slight­ly bet­ter video qual­i­ty than the indi­vid­ual clips above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Hunter S. Thompson’s Many Strange, Unpre­dictable Appear­ances on The David Let­ter­man Show

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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